May. 5, 2017 - New York Times

Justin Elghanayan stood on a roof, gazing at a forest of half-built towers. “For a long time this neighborhood was about what will be,” said Mr. Elghanayan, the president of Rockrose Development, “and now I think it’s about what is.”

That neighborhood-in-the-making is the Court Square section of Long Island City, Queens, a longtime industrial area by the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge that is experiencing a surge in residential construction.

While past efforts to add apartments to Long Island City focused largely on the banks of the East River, developers have started to push inland to create a skyline in a place that never really had one, save for the Citigroup Building.

But that was then. According to Halstead Property Development Marketing, a staggering 26 apartment buildings with more than 9,000 units are planned or underway in Court Square, making the wedge-shaped area between 21st Street, 41st Avenue and the Sunnyside rail yards one of the hottest development zones in the city, according to brokers.

The latest contribution from Rockrose, a firm that has played a major role in reinventing the area through the years, is the Hayden, a 51-story tower at 43-25 Hunter Street that soars above rivals and gives the 50-story Citigroup tower, also known as One Court Square, a run for its money.

Named for Levy Hayden, who in the mid-1800s ran a dry-dock facility and who coined the Long Island City name, according to historical accounts, Rockrose’s rental offers 974 studio to two-bedroom apartments. With wood floors, granite counters and stacked washers and dryers, the Hayden also has 30,000 square feet of amenities, including a rare full-size basketball court, a two-level gym and a yoga studio overlooking a grassy garden.

In contrast, at the Linc LIC, a 709-unit, 42-story Rockrose-owned rental around the corner that opened in 2014, there is 20,000 square feet of amenities, including a half-size basketball court, Mr. Elghanayan said.

The Hayden, whose construction is being phased, put its first market-rate units up for rent earlier this year. Prices at those 190 units start at $2,400 a month for studios and $3,000 a month for one-bedrooms — the most common unit type — though Rockrose is also throwing in a free month of rent on a one-year lease. In late April, after two months of marketing, those units were about 95 percent leased, Rockrose said.

Separately, 195 of the Hayden’s 974 units are designated as affordable housing, and are reserved for people making certain incomes and available at reduced rents. The units have been assigned via lottery and are in the process of being leased.

Not too long ago, renters might have breathed a sigh of relief that the Hayden had so many entertainment options under its own roof, as the neighborhood, a mix of factories, garages and court-related businesses, was not exactly exciting.

Court Square might still have a ways to go until achieving the buzziness of, say, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But in recent months, it has taken steps in that direction.

Last winter, Toby’s Estate, a New York coffee chain, opened its first store in Queens at 26-25 Jackson Avenue. In this red brick Rockrose-owned three-story building, two interior floors had been removed, allowing customers to gaze up into a lofty beam-crossed space. While creating a cool look was one goal, removing those floors also allowed Rockrose to increase the size of the Hayden by transferring the smaller building’s unused floor volume, about 20,000 square feet, to the nearby tower.

Two doors away, at 26-21 Jackson, Rockrose has installed Levante, an Italian restaurant from Stella Management Group. It is to open by summer, as is Sapps, a sushi joint at 27-26 Jackson, Mr. Elghanayan said.

Ink-on-paper fans may also be heartened to learn that Book Culture, which has several Manhattan locations, has leased a 2,300-square-foot space at 26-09 Jackson, another Rockrose berth. And to increase the likelihood that Book Culture survives after it opens next year, Rockrose is discounting its rent until it can turn a profit, Mr. Elghanayan said. “We think it’s important for the soul of the neighborhood,” he said.

Those businesses join a branch of Foodcellar and Co. Market, a 14,000-square-foot high-end food store that ended the area’s run as a relative grocery desert when it opened in 2015, on the ground floor of Linc LIC.

But for all the changes afoot on the ground, the most dramatic shifts seem to be happening in the sky. Indeed, rising a few blocks away is a three-tower residential complex with nearly 1,900 units from the developer Tishman Speyer.

The first high-rise to open will be 28-10 Jackson Avenue, a shimmering 44-story building that will have 670 apartments, with leasing starting in the fourth quarter. Tishman’s second tower, at 28-34 Jackson, will have 53 stories and 650 units, while its third to open, 30-02 Queens Boulevard, will have 42 stories and 550 units. Offering on-site shops, a 1.5-acre private park and a 50,000-square-foot, amenity-laden clubhouse, the complex is expected to be completed by 2019.

Other major planned residences include 23-15 44th Drive, from a team that includes United Construction and Development Group; the project aims to be an 802-unit condominium tower but awaits zoning approval, said Jiashu Xu, United’s president. United has demolished buildings and hopes to start construction this summer.

Another huge project is at 43-30 24th Street, where Stawski Partners plans to develop 923 apartments in a 66-story building, according to city records. Even more commanding is 22-44 Jackson, with about 1,150 rental units, from the Wolkoff Group. The two-towered building, called 5pointz, should open in fall 2018, said Jerry Wolkoff, a principal of the firm.

While those projects take shape, immediate competition may come from the Forge, a 33-story spire from Brause Realty and the Gotham Organization with 272 studios to two-bedrooms. The building, at 44-28 Purves Street, features 26,000 square feet of amenities, including a 50-foot outdoor pool, and will start leasing in June, according to a spokeswoman.

Rockrose has other projects cooking. Its Eagle Lofts, which melds a 54-story modern tower to a low-slung former electrical warehouse at 43-22 Queens Street as part of a 790-unit complex, is now under construction, with an expected 2018 completion date.

While still rare, condos have already turned up, like the Harrison, a 27-story, 120-unit building at 27-21 44th Drive from Silvercup Properties. In late April, a three-bedroom there was for sale for $1.7 million.

Construction isn’t limited to Court Square. Farther inland, in a part of Long Island City that some brokers have started to call Dutch Kills, the firms D. A. Development Group and JBL Development Group are at work on the Smyth, a seven-story, 41-unit building. With a red brick facade and wide-plank wood floors, the condo, at 25-16 37th Avenue, is expected to start marketing this spring, said Eric Benaim, the founder and chief executive of the brokerage Modern Spaces, which is handling sales.

Mr. Benaim, who is active across Long Island City, said the area could seem to be getting ahead of itself in terms of housing. But with waves of new residents expected to come from Brooklyn as rents skyrocket, and from Cornell Tech, the graduate school opening this summer on nearby Roosevelt Island, apartments shouldn’t sit empty for long.

“We have many saving graces,” he said.